HotFreeBooks.com
A Tall Ship - On Other Naval Occasions
by Sir Lewis Anselm da Costa Ritchie
Previous Part     1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

No sooner was tea over, therefore, than Joe sprang to his feet. "I say, would you like to go for a walk?" Once outside, the flower of wit would expand without a doubt.

The Indiarubber Man appeared nonplussed at the proposal. "I—it's very kind of you——" Then he turned to Betty. "Shall we all three go for a walk?"

"Oh, it's no use asking her to go for a proper walk," interposed the alarmed Joe. "Her skirts are too narrow; she can't keep step, or jump ditches, or anything."

Betty laughed. "Are you anxious to jump ditches, Mr. Standish? Because, if not, I think I might be able to keep up with you both." She rose to her feet, a slim, gracefully modelled young woman who looked perfectly capable of keeping up with anyone—or of jumping ditches, too, for that matter. "I'll get my things if you will wait a second." Joe, unseen by their guest, made a face at her of unfeigned brotherly disgust.

In the open air, however, the guest's spirits gave no more evidence of an upward tendency than they had indoors. The trio walked, via the sea front, to the gardens on top of the cliffs that overlooked the harbour. Joe directed the conversation; it was largely concerned with battle and bloodshed.

"Mr. Standish, what do you do in action?" he asked presently.

"Nothing," was the reply. "I just put my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes—I'm the officer of the after turret. But when it's all over I put on overalls and crawl about the works on my stomach and get a dirty face with the best of them. A wit once defined a turret as a bundle of tricks done up in armour."

"Is it thick armour?" asked Betty.

"They tell me it is—fellows on board who pretend to know everything. But I suspect that to be a mere ruse to get me to stay inside it."

Joe sighed. "I do envy you," he said. "Everyone seems to have something to do, 'cept me. Even Betty here——"

The Indiarubber Man turned his head sharply. "Why, what——"

Betty turned pink. "I'm going to nurse—on the East Coast. My old school has been turned into a hospital. And the other day Miss Dacre—she was the principal, you know, and she is nursing there now—wrote to mother and said they would take me."

"But," said the Indiarubber Man, "d'you think you could stick it—hacking off fellows' legs, and that sort of thing? Blessed if I could do it."

"Oh, yes," was the calm reply. "I passed all my exams, a long time ago—in fact, I've been working down here at this hospital for the last six months. We learned a good deal at school, you see. Home nursing, and so on."

"Did you, by Jove! Simple dishes for the sick-room and spica bandages, and all the rest of it?"

Betty laughed. "Oh, yes, all that."

The Indiarubber Man glanced at her small, capable hands, and from them to the dainty profile beside him. "Well," he said, "if I get bent by an eight-inch shell I shall know where to come."

Betty laughed again; "I should have to look that up in a book, then, before I nursed you. It might mean complications!"

"It might," replied the Indiarubber Man.

From the town below, where here and there a window went suddenly aflare with the reflection of the sunset-light, there drifted up to them the faint, clear call of a bugle. Another took it up along the front, and yet another. The Indiarubber Man raised his head abruptly.

"That's the recall!" he said, and turned towards the ships. "Yes, they've hoisted the Blue Peter. I wonder—the boats are coming in, too."

"Does that mean you must go at once?"

He nodded soberly. "I'm afraid so," and held out his hand. "Good-bye."

"Hallo!" said Joe. "I say, you're not off, are you? What's up?"

"That's what I'm going to find out," was the reply. "I believe it's another of their dodges to lure me inside my turret. Good-bye, Miss Betty. Don't forget to read up the book of the words—in case of complications. . . . Good-bye!" The Indiarubber Man departed down one of the steep paths that led to the lower road and the landing-place. The brother and sister turned and walked slowly back to the house.

Their conversation on the way was confined to speculation on the part of Joe as to the reason for this sudden recall. His theories covered a wide range of possibilities. Only when they reached the house did Betty volunteer a remark, and then in the privacy of her own room, whose window looked out across the harbour and the sea.

"Oh, I hate the War," she said. "I hate it, I hate it. . . ."



[1] Paying calls.



V

THE KING'S PARDON

Ask the first thousand bluejackets you meet ashore, any afternoon the Fleet is giving leave, why they joined the navy. Nine hundred and ninety-nine will eye you suspiciously, awaiting the inevitable tract. If none is forthcoming they will give a short, grim laugh, shake their heads, and, as likely as not, expectorate. These portents may be taken to imply that they really do not know themselves, or are too shy to say so, if they do.

The thousandth does not laugh. He may shake his head; spit he certainly will. And then, scenting silent sympathy, he guides you to a quiet bar-parlour where you can pay for his beer while he talks.

This is the man with a past and a grievance.

* * * * *

Nosey Baines, Stoker Second-class, was a man with a past. He also owned a grievance when he presented himself for entry into His Majesty's Navy. They were about his only possessions.

"Nosey" was not, of course, his strict baptismal name. That was Orson—no less. Therein lay the past. "Nosey" was the result of facial peculiarities quite beyond his control. His nose was out of proportion to the remainder of his features. This system of nomenclature survives from the Stone Age, and, sailors being conservative folk, still finds favour on the lower-decks of H.M. Ships and Vessels.

The Writer in the Certificate Office at the Naval Depot, where Nosey Baines was entered for service as a Second-class Stoker under training, had had a busy morning. There had been a rush of new entries owing to the conclusion of the hop-picking season, the insolvency of a local ginger-beer bottling factory, and other mysterious influences. Nosey's parchment certificate (that document which accompanies a man from ship to ship, and, containing all particulars relating to him, is said to be a man's passport through life) was the nineteenth he had made out that morning.

"Name?"

Nosey spelt it patiently.

"Religion?"

Nosey looked sheepish and rather flattered—as a Hottentot might if you asked him for the address of his tailor. The Writer gave the surface of the parchment a preparatory rub with a piece of indiarubber. "Well, come on—R. C., Church of England, Methodist . . . ?"

Nosey selected the second alternative. It sounded patriotic at all events.

"Next o' kin? Nearest relative?"

"Never 'ad none," replied Nosey haughtily. "I'm a norfun."

"Ain't you got no one?" asked the weary Writer. He had been doing this sort of thing for the last eighteen months, and it rather bored him. "S'pose you was to die—wouldn't you like no one to be told?"

Nosey brought his black brows together with a scowl and shook his head. This was what he wanted, an opportunity to declare his antagonism to all the gentler influences of the land. . . . If he were to die, even . . .

The Ship's Corporal, waiting to guide him to the New Entry Mess, touched him on the elbow. The Writer was gathering his papers together. A sudden wave of forlornness swept over Nosey. He wanted his dinner, and was filled with emptiness and self-pity. The world was vast and disinterested in him. There were evidences on all sides of an unfamiliar and terrifying discipline. . . .

"You come allonger me," said the voice of the Ship's Corporal, a deep, alarming voice, calculated to inspire awe and reverence in the breast of a new entry. Nosey turned, and then stopped irresolutely. If he were to die——

"'Ere," he said, relenting. "Nex' o' kin—I ain't got none. But I gotter fren'." He coloured hotly. "Miss Abel's 'er name; 14 Golder's Square, Bloomsbury, London. Miss J. Abel."

This was Janie—the Grievance. It was to punish Janie that Nosey had flung in his lot with those who go down to the sea in ships.

Prior to this drastic step Nosey had been an errand-boy, a rather superior kind of errandboy, who went his rounds on a ramshackle bicycle with a carrier fixed in front. Painted in large letters on the carrier was the legend:

J. HOLMES & SON, FISHMONGER ICE, ETC.,

and below, in much smaller letters, "Cash on delivery."

Janie was a general servant in a Bloomsbury boarding-house. She it was who answered the area door when Nosey called to deliver such kippers and smoked haddock as were destined by the gods and Mr. Holmes for the boarding-house breakfast table.

It is hard to say in what respect Janie lit the flame of love within Nosey's breast. She was diminutive and flat-chested; her skin was sallow from life-long confinement in basement sculleries and the atmosphere of the Bloomsbury boarding-house. She had little beady black eyes, and a print dress that didn't fit her at all well. One stocking was generally coming down in folds over her ankle. Her hands were chapped and nubbly—pathetic as the toil-worn hands of a woman alone can be. Altogether she was just the little unlovely slavey of fiction and the drama and everyday life in boarding-house-land.

Yet the fishmonger's errand-boy—Orson Baines, by your leave, and captain of his soul—loved her as not even Antony loved Cleopatra.

Janie met him every other Sunday as near three o'clock as she could get away. The Sunday boarding-house luncheon included soup on its menu, which meant more plates to wash up than usual. They met under the third lamp-post on the left-hand side going towards the British Museum.

Once a fortnight, from 8 p.m. till 10 p.m., Janie tasted the penultimate triumph of womanhood. She was courted. Poor Janie!

No daughter of Eve had less of the coquette in her composition. Not for a moment did she realise the furrows that she was ploughing in Nosey's amiable soul. Other girls walked out on their Sundays. The possession of a young man—even a fishmonger's errand-boy on twelve bob a week—was a necessary adjunct to life itself. Of all that "walking out" implied: of love, even as it was understood in Bloomsbury basements, Janie's anaemic little heart suspected very little; but romance was there, fluttering tattered ribbons, luring her on through the drab fog of her workaday existence.

It was otherwise with Nosey. His love for Janie was a very real affair, although what sowed the seeds was not apparent, and although the soil in which they took root and thrived—the daily interviews at the area door and these fortnightly strolls—seemed, on the face of it, inadequate. Perhaps he owed his queer gift of constancy to the mysterious past that gave him his baptismal name. They were both unusual.

A certain Sunday afternoon in early autumn found them sitting side by side on a seat in a grubby London square. Janie, gripping the handle of cook's borrowed umbrella, which she held perpendicularly before her, the toes of her large boots turned a little inwards, was sucking a peppermint bull's-eye.

To Nosey the hour and the place seemed propitious, and he proposed heroic marriage.

"Lor!" gasped Janie, staring before her at the autumn tints that were powdering the dingy elms with gold-dust. There was mingled pride and perplexity in her tones; slowly she savoured the romantic moment to the full, turning it over in her mind as the bull's-eye revolved in her cheek, before finally putting it from her. Then:

"I couldn't marry you," she said gently. "You ain't got no prospecks." Walking out with twelve bob a week was one thing; marriage quite a different matter.

In the Orphanage where she had been reared from infancy the far-seeing Sisters had, perhaps, not been unmindful of the possibility of this moment. A single life of drudgery and hardship, even as a boarding-house slavey, meant, if nothing more, meals and a roof over her head. Improvident marriage demanded, sooner or later, starvation. This one star remained to guide her when all else of the good Sisters' teaching grew dim in her memory.

Prospecks—marry without and you were done. So ran Janie's philosophy. The remains of the bull's-eye faded into dissolution.

Nosey was aghast. The perfidy of women! "You led me on!" he cried. "You bin carry in' on wiv me. . . . 'Ow could you? Pictur' palaces an' fried fish suppers an' all." He referred to the sweets of their courtship. "'Ow, Janie!"

Janie wept.

After that the daily meetings at the area door were not to be thought of. Nosey flung himself off in a rage, and for two successive nights contemplated suicide from the parapet of Westminster Bridge. The irksome round of duties on the ramshackle bicycle became impossible. The very traffic murmured the name of Janie in his ears. London stifled him; he wanted to get away and bury himself and his grief in new surroundings. Then his eye was caught by one of the Admiralty recruiting posters in the window of a Whitehall post office. It conjured up a vision of a roving, care-free life . . . of illimitable spaces and great healing winds. . . . A life of hard living and hard drinking, when a man could forget.

But somehow Nosey didn't forget.

* * * * *

The Navy received him without emotion. They cut his hair and pulled out his teeth. They washed and clothed and fed him generously. He was taught in a vast echoing drill-shed to recognise and respect authority, and after six months' preliminary training informed that he was a Second-class Stoker, and as such drafted to sea in the Battle-Cruiser Squadron.

Here Nosey found himself an insignificant unit among nearly a thousand barefooted, free-fisted, cursing, clean-shaven men, who smelt perpetually of soap and damp serge, and comprised the lower-deck complement of a British battle-cruiser.

He worked in an electric-lit, steel tunnel, with red-hot furnaces on one side, and the gaping mouths of coal caverns on the other. You reached it by perpendicular steel ladders descending through a web of hissing steam pipes and machinery; once across greasy deck-plates and through a maze of dimly lit alleys, you would find Nosey shovelling coal into the furnaces under the direction of a hairy-chested individual afflicted, men said, by religious mania, who sucked pieces of coal as an antidote to chronic thirst, and spat about him indiscriminately.

There were eight-hour intervals in this work, during which Nosey slept or ate his meals or played a mouth-organ in the lee of one of the turret-guns on deck, according to the hour of the day. He slept in a hammock slung in an electric-lit passage far below the water-line; the passage was ten feet wide, and there were six hammocks slung abreast along the entire length of it.

He ate his meals in a mess with twenty other men, the mess consisting of a deal plank covered with oilcloth for a table, and two narrower planks on either side as seats; there were shelves for crockery against the ship's side. All this woodwork was scrubbed and scoured till it was almost as white as ivory. Other messes, identical in every respect, situated three feet apart, ranged parallel to each other as far as the steel, enamelled bulkheads. There were twenty men in each mess, and seventeen messes on that particular mess-deck, and here the members simultaneously ate, slept, sang, washed their clothes, cursed and laughed, skylarked or quarrelled all round during the waking hours of their watch-off.

Still Nosey did not forget.

* * * * *

Then came Janie's letter from the Middlesex Hospital. Janie was in a "decline."

The men who go down into trenches in the firing-line are, if anything, less heroic than the army of cooks and Janies who descend to spend their lives in the basement "domestic offices" of Bloomsbury. Dark and ill-ventilated in summer, gas-lit and airless throughout the foggy winter. Flight upon flight of stairs up which Janie daily toiled a hundred times before she was suffered to seek the attic she shared with cook under the slates. Overwork, lack of fresh air and recreation—all these had told at last.

Nosey availed himself of week-end leave from Portsmouth to journey up to London, and was permitted an interview with her in the big airy ward. Neither spoke much; at no time had they been great conversationalists, and now Janie, more diminutive and angular than ever, lost in the folds of a flannel nightgown, was content to hold his hand as long as he was allowed to remain.

The past was ignored, or nearly so. "You didn't orter gone off like that," said Janie reproachfully. "But I'm glad you're a sailor. You looks beautiful in them clothes. An' there's prospecks in the Navy." Poor little Janie: she had "prospecks" herself at last.

He left the few flowers he had brought with the sister of the ward when the time came to leave. The nurse followed him into the corridor. "Come and see her every visiting day you can," she said. "It does her good and cheers her. She often speaks of you."

Nosey returned to Portsmouth and his ship. His mess—the mess-deck itself—was agog with rumours. Had he heard the "buzz"? Nosey had not. "I bin to London to see a fren'," he explained.

Then they told him.

The battle-cruiser to which he belonged had been ordered to join the Mediterranean Fleet. That was Monday; they were to sail for Malta on Thursday.

And Janie was dying in the Middlesex Hospital.

* * * * *

The next visiting day found him at Janie's bedside. But, instead of his spick-and-span serge suit of "Number Ones" and carefully ironed blue collar, Nosey wore a rusty suit of "civvies" (civilian clothes). Instead of being clean-shaven, an inconsiderable moustache was feeling its way through his upper lip.

"Where's your sailor clothes?" asked Janie weakly.

Nosey looked round to reassure himself that they were not overheard. "I done a bunk!" he whispered.

Janie gazed at him with dismayed eyes. "Not—not deserted?"

Nosey nodded. "Don't you take on, Janie. 'S only so's I can stay near you." He pressed her dry hand. "I got a barrer—whelks an' periwinkles. I've saved a bit o' money. An' now I can stay near you an' come 'ere visiting days."

Janie was too weak to argue or expostulate. It may have been that she was conscious of a certain amount of pride in Nosey's voluntary outlawry for her sake; and she was glad enough to have someone to sit with her on visiting days and tell her about the outside world she was never to see again. She even went back in spirit to the proud days when they walked out together. . . . It brought balm to the cough-racked nights and the weary passage of the days.

Then the streets echoed with the cries of paper-boys. The nurses whispered together excitedly in their leisure moments; the doctors seemed to acquire an added briskness. Once or twice she heard the measured tramp of feet in the streets below, as a regiment was moved from one quarters to another.

England was at war with Germany, they told her. But the intelligence did not interest Janie much at first. That empires should battle for supremacy concerned her very little—till she remembered Nosey's late calling.

It was two days before she saw him again, and he still wore his "civvy" suit. Janie smiled as he approached the bed, and fumbled with the halfpenny daily paper that somebody had given her to look at.

'"Ere," she whispered, "read that."

Nosey bent over and read the lines indicated by the thin forefinger.

His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of pardons being granted to all deserters from the Royal Navy and Marines who surrender themselves forthwith.

There was silence in the ward for a moment. Far below in the street outside a transport wagon rumbled by. Janie braced herself for the supreme act of her life.

"You gotter go," said she.

Nosey stared at her and then back at the newspaper. "Not me!" he retorted, and took possession of her hand.

"That's the King's pardon," said Janie, touching the halfpenny news-sheet with transparent fingers. "'Tain't no use you comin' 'ere no more, 'cos I won't see you. I'll ask 'em at the door not to let you in."

Nosey knew that note of indomitable obstinacy in the weak voice. He knew, as he sat looking down upon the fragile atom in the bed, that he could kill her with the pressure of a finger.

But there was no way of making Janie go back on her decision once her mind was made up. "If there's a war, you orter be fightin'," she added. "There's prospecks . . ." Her weak voice was almost inaudible, and the nurse was coming down the ward towards them.

Nosey lifted the hot, dry little claw to his lips. "If you sez I gotter go, I'll go," and rose to his feet.

"'Course you gotter go. The King sez so, an' I sez so. Don't you get worritin' about me; I'll be all right when you comes 'ome wiv yer medals. . . ."

Nosey caught the nurse's eye and tiptoed out of the ward. Janie turned her face to the Valley of the Shadow.



VI

AN OFF-SHORE WIND

The circular rim of the fore-top took on a harder outline as the sky paled at the first hint of dawn.

From this elevation it was possible to make out the details of the ships astern, details that grew momentarily more distinct. Day, awakening, found the Battle Fleet steaming in line ahead across a smooth grey sea. The smoke from the funnels hung like a long dark smear against the pearly light of the dawn; but as the pearl changed to primrose and the primrose to saffron, the sombre streamers dissolved into the mists of morning.

Somewhere among the islands on our starboard bow a little wind awoke and brought with it the scent of heather and moist earth. It was a good smell—just such a smell as our nostrils had hungered for for many months—and it stirred a host of vagrant memories as it went sighing past the halliards and shrouds.

It was the turn of the Indiarubber Man (with whom I had shared the night's vigil aloft) to snatch a "stretch off the land" with his back against the steel side of our erie [Transcriber's note: eyrie?]. He shifted his position uneasily, and the hood of his duffel-suit fell back: his face, in the dawning, looked white and tired and unshaven. Cinders had collected in the folds of the thick garment as wind-blown snow lies in the hollows of uneven ground.

As I stood looking down at him an expression of annoyance passed across his sleeping countenance.

"Any old where——" he said in a clear, decisive voice. "Down a rabbit-hole . . ."

And I laughed because the off-shore wind had fluttered the same page in the book of pleasant memories that we both shared. The petulant expression passed from his face, and he sank into deeper oblivion, holding the Thermos flask and binoculars against him like a child clasping its dolls in its sleep.

It was just before we mobilised for the summer—a mobilisation which, had we but known it, was to last until our book of pleasant memories was thumbed and dog-eared and tattered with much usage—that the Indiarubber Man suggested taking a day off and having what he called a "stamp." He fetched our ordnance map and spread it on the ward-room table, and we pored over it most of the evening, sucking our pipes.

All Devon is good; and for a while the lanes had called us, winding from one thatched village to another between their fragrant, high-banked hedges. "Think of the little pubs . . ." said the Indiarubber Man dreamily. We thought of them, but with the vision came one of cyclists of the grey-sweater variety, and motorists filling the air with petrol fumes and dust.

There was the river: woodland paths skirting in the evening a world of silver and grey, across which bats sketched zigzag flights. Very nice in the dimpsey light, but stuffy in the daytime. So the moor had it in the end. We would trudge the moor from north to south, never seeing a soul, and, aided by map and compass, learn the peace of a day spent off the beaten tracks of man.

We had been in the train some time before the Indiarubber Man made his electrifying discovery.

"Where's the map?" We eyed one another severely and searched our pockets. "We were looking at it before I went to get the tickets," he pursued. "I gave it to you to fold up."

So he had. I left it on the station seat.

At a wayside station bookstall we managed to unearth an alleged reproduction of the fair face of South Devon to replace the lost map.

The Indiarubber Man traced the writhings of several caterpillars with his pipe-stem. "These are tors," he explained generously. After this we studied the map in silence, vainly attempting to confirm our recollections of a course marked out the previous evening on an ordnance survey map.

We were both getting slightly confused when, with a screech of brakes, the train pulled up at the little moorside station that was our destination by rail. Sunlight bathed the grey buildings on the platform and the sleepy village beyond. From the blue overhead came the thin, sweet notes of a lark, and as we listened in the stillness we heard a faint whispering "swish" like the sound of a very distant reaper. It was the wind flowing across miles of reeds and grass and heather from the distant Atlantic. But it was not until half an hour later, when we breasted the crest of the great hog-back that stretched before us like a rampart, that we ourselves met the wind. It came out of the west, athwart the sun's rays, a steady rush of warm air; and with it came the tang of the sea and hint of honey and new-mown hay that somehow clings to Devon moorland through all the changing seasons.

A cluster of giant rocks piled against the sky to our left drew us momentarily out of our course. With some difficulty we scrambled up their warm surfaces, where the lichen clung bleached and russet, and stood looking out across the rolling uplands of Devon. Worthier adventurers would have improved the shining hour with debate as to the origin of this upflung heap of Nature's masonry. Had it served departed Phoenicians as an altar? Heaven and the archaeologists alone knew.

To the northward the patchwork of plough and green corn, covert and hamlet commenced at the edge of the railway and stretched undulating over hill and dale to where a grey smudge proclaimed the sea.

South lay the moor, inscrutable and mysterious, dotted with the monuments of a people forgotten before walls ringed the seven hills of Rome. The outlines of tors, ever softening in the distance, led the eye from rugged crest to misty beacon till, forty miles away, they dissolved into the same grey haze.

The Indiarubber Man pointed a lean, prophetic forefinger to the rolling south. "There's Wheatwood," he said. "Come on." And so, shouldering our coats, with the hot sunlight on our right cheeks and the day before us, we started across Dartmoor.

For nearly two hours the tor from which we had started watched with friendly reassurance over intervening hills; then it dipped out of sight, and we were conscious of a sudden loneliness in a world of enigmatic hut-circles, peopled by sheep and peewits. We were working across a piece of ground intersected by peat-cuttings, and after half an hour of it the Indiarubber Man fished out the map and compass from his pocket.

"There ought to be a clump of trees, a hut-circle, and a Roman road knocking about somewhere. Can you see anything of them?"

I searched the landscape through glasses from my recumbent position in the heather, but prolonged scrutiny failed to reveal a single tree, nor was the Roman road startlingly obvious in the trackless waste. Our map had proved too clever for us. In the circumstances there was only one thing to be done. With awful calm we folded the sheet, tore it into little pieces, and hid them in a rabbit-hole.

For about five miles after that we kept along a promontory that shouldered its way across an undulating plain, ringed in the distance by purple hills; then we sighted our distant landmark—a conical beacon—that we had been steering for. We were descending, thigh-deep in bracken, when the wind bore down to us from a dot against the skyline of a ridge the tiniest of thin whistles. A few minutes later a sheep-dog raced past in the direction of a cluster of white specks. For a while we watched it, and each lithe, effortless bound, as it passed upon its quest, struck a responsive chord within us—we who floundered clumsily among the boulders in our path.

But, for all this momentary exhilaration, it seemed a long time later that we struck the source of the burn which would in time guide us to our half-way halting place. To us, who had been nurtured on its broad bosom,[1] there was something almost pathetic—as in meeting an old nurse in much reduced circumstances—about this trickle among the peat and moss. Lower down, however, it widened, and the water poured over granite boulders, with a bell-like contralto note, into a succession of amber pools.

There we shed our few garments on the bank, and the moments that followed, from the first exultant thrill as the water effervesced over our bodies till we crawled out dripping to dry in the wind and sun, seemed to hold only gratitude—an immense undefined gratitude to the Power that held all life. At its heels came hunger, wonderfully well defined.

Lower down, where the road that stretches like a white ribbon over the bosom of the moor crosses the river, there is an inn. I will not name it: writers of poems and guide-books—worthier penmen all—have done that. Besides, quite enough people go there as it is. We dropped, via a kine-scented yard and over a seven-foot bank, into the road abreast the inn door, and here a brake, freighted with tourist folk, brought us suddenly back to the conventions that everyday life demands.

True, we were never fain to cling to these; but, standing there on the King's high-road, clad in football knickers and thin jerseys, sun-burnt and dishevelled, we were conscious of a sudden immense embarrassment. And, in sooth, had we dropped from the skies or been escaping from the grey prison not far distant, the tenants of the brake could hardly have been less merciful in their scrutiny or comments.

After the clean wind of the moor, the taint of the last meal and over-clad fellow-beings seemed to cling unpleasantly to the low-ceilinged room whither we fled, and I do not think we breathed comfortably again till we had paid our bill and returned to the sunlight. Before leaving we inquired the time, and learned it was nearly four o'clock.

One ought to "know the time," it seems, among men's haunts; but, once out of sight of these, it suffices, surely, to eat when hungry, sleep when tired, roam as long as daylight and legs will let one—in fine, to share with the shaggy ponies and browsing sheep a lofty disregard for all artificial divisions of the earth's journey through space. And our joint watch happened at the time to be undergoing repairs in Plymouth.

To follow the ramifications of a road gives one no lasting impression of the surrounding country, but directly a wanderer has to depend on landmarks as a guide, all his powers of observation quicken. One ragged hill-top guided us to another, across valleys scored with the workings of forgotten tin-mines. A brook, crooning its queer, independent moor-song between banks of peat, rambled beside us for some time. Then, as if wearying of our company, it turned abruptly and was lost to view; in the summer stillness of late afternoon we heard it babbling on long after our ways separated.

If the truth be known, I suspect it deemed us dullish dogs. But we were tiring—not with the jaded weariness begotten of hard roads, when the spine aches and knees stiffen; no, a comfortable lassitude was slackening our joints and bringing thoughts of warm baths and supper. However, our shadows, valiant fellows, swung along before us across the rusty bracken with a cheerful constancy, and, encouraged by their ever-lengthening strides and by the solitude, we even found heart to lift our voices in song. Now and again small birds fled upwards with shrill twitters at our approach, and settled again to resume their interrupted suppers; but after a while they left for their roosts in the rowans and sycamores to the south, and rabbits began to show themselves in the open spaces among the furze. As if reluctantly, the perfect day drew to its close.

We raced up the flank of a long ridge to keep the setting sun in view, reaching the crest as it dipped to meet a ragged tor, and sank in a golden glow. A little wind, like a tired sigh, ruffled the tops of the heather, swayed the grass an instant, and was gone.

"Ah-h-h!" breathed the Indiarubber Man in the stillness.

A thousand feet below us smoke was curling from the thickly wooded valley. It was five miles away, but somewhere amid those trees men brewed and women baked.

"Come on," he added tensely. "Beer!"

As we descended into the lowlands a widening circle of night was stealing up into the sky—the blue-grey and purple of a pigeon's breast. A single star appeared in the western sky, intensifying the peace of the silent moor behind us. Stumbling through twilit woods and across fields of young barley, we met a great dog-fox en route for someone's poultry-run. He bared his teeth with angry effrontery as he sheered off and gave us a wide berth across the darkening fields. Doubtless he claimed his supremacy of hour and place, as did the sheep-dog that passed us so joyously earlier in the day. And, after all, what were we but interlopers from a lower plane!

The thirty-odd miles of our ramble reeled up like a tape-measure as we reached the lane, splashed with moonlight, that led us to the village. The gateway to every field held a pair of lovers whispering among the shadows: yet inexplicably they seemed an adjunct of their surroundings and the faintly bewildering night-scents. A dog sitting at the gate of a cottage uttered a short bark as we neared his domain; then, with a queer grumbling whimper, he came to us across the dust, and perhaps because—as far as is given to man in his imperfections—we had not wittingly done evil that day, he slobbered at our hands.

In the flagged and wainscotted parlour of the village inn a child brought us bread and cheese and froth-crested mugs of beer. While we ate and drank, she watched us with tranquil interest in violet-coloured eyes that foretold a sleepless night for some bucolic swain in years to come.

The Indiarubber Man finished his last draught and stood up with a mighty sigh to loosen his belt. Then, bending down, he took the child's flower-like face between his hands:

"'Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,'" he said gravely. Beer was ever prone to lend a certain smack of Scripture to his remarks.

"Surt'nly," said the little maid, all uncomprehending, and ran out to fetch our reckoning.

* * * * *

The Thermos flask slid with a clatter on to the steel deck of the top, and the Indiarubber Man opened his eyes. He yawned and stretched himself and rose stiffly to his feet.

The first rays of the sun were rising out of the sea. "Hai-yah!" He yawned. "Another bloomin' day. . . . I was dreaming . . . about . . . blowed if I can remember what I was dreaming about." He adjusted the focus of his glasses and stared out across the North Sea. "I wonder if they're coming out to-day."

It was the two hundred and seventy-third morning we had wondered that.



[1] The River Dart.



VII

THE DAY

Although it all happened in that dim, remote period of time "Before the War," Torps and the First Lieutenant, the Indiarubber Man (who was the Lieutenant for Physical Training Duties), the Junior Watchkeeper, and others who participated, long afterwards referred to it as "The Day."

Since then they have seen their own gunfire sink an enemy's ship as a well-flung brick disposes of an empty tin on the surface of a pond. The after twelve-inch guns, astride whose muzzles David and Freckles once soared to the giddy stars, have hurled instantaneous and awful death across leagues of the North Sea. The X-ray apparatus, by the agency of which Cornelius James desired to see right through his own "tummy," has enabled the Fleet Surgeon to pick fragments of steel out of tortured bodies, as a conjurer takes things out of a hat. The after-cabin, that had witnessed so many informal tea-and-muffin parties, has been an ether-reeking hospital.

Yet these memories grew blurred in time, as mercifully such memories do. It was another and more fragrant one that sweetened the grim winter vigil in the North, when every smudge of smoke on the horizon might have been the herald of Armageddon. They were yet to see men die by scores in the shambles of a wrecked battery, by hundreds on the shell-torn decks of a ship that sank, fighting gallantly to the last. And the recollection of what I am about to relate doubtless supplied sufficient answer to the question that at such times assails the minds of men.

Two who helped in that unforgettable good-night scene on the aft-deck were destined to add their names to the Roll of Britain's Honour. It is not too much to hope that the echo of children's merriment guided their footsteps through that dark Valley of the Shadow to the peaks of Eternal Laughter which lie beyond.

* * * * *

It all started during one of those informal tea-parties the Skipper's Missus sometimes held in the after-cabin. They were delightful affairs. You needn't accept the Invitation if you didn't want to; there was no necessity to put on your best monkey-jacket if you did. You were just told to "blow in" if you wanted some tea, and then you made your own toast, and there was China tea, in a big blue-and-white pot, that scented the whole cabin.

The Skipper's Missus sat by the fire, with her hands linked round her knees in her habitually graceful and oddly characteristic attitude; Torps and Jess, those gentle philosophers, occupied the chintz-covered settee; the A.P. sat on the hearth-rug, cross-legged like a tailor, so that he could toast and consume the maximum number of muffins with the minimum amount of exertion; the Junior Watchkeeper, who by his own admission "went all the bundle on his tea," and the Indiarubber Man, who was clumsy with a tea-cup, shared the table and a jam-pot, and sat munching, tranquil-eyed, like a pair of oxen in a stall.

The Captain and the First Lieutenant were rummaging through the drawers of the knee-hole table in search of an ancient recipe of the former's for manufacturing varnish of a peculiar excellence wherewith to beautify the corticene on the aft-deck.

"How are the children?" asked the Torpedo Lieutenant, helping himself to milk and Jess to a lump of sugar. "Out of quarantine yet?"

"Yes," replied the youthful mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James. "At last, poor things! Christmas is such a wretched time to have measles. No parties, no Christmas-tree——"

The A.P. looked up from the absorbing task of buttering a muffin to his satisfaction. "D'you remember the Christmas when you all came on board—wasn't it a rag? I broke my glasses because I was a tiger. I was that fierce."

"And I was chased by the dockyard police all the way from the Admiral Superintendent's garden with a young fir-tree under my arm. We had it for a Christmas-tree in the wardroom. Do you remember?"

They were all old friends, you see, and had served two commissions in succession with this Captain.

"Isn't it rather hard on the Chee-si's?" asked Torps, "being done out of their parties—no, Jess, three lumps are considered quite enough for little dogs to consume at one sitting."

The Skipper's Missus looked across the cabin at her husband: "Tim, your tea's getting cold. Why shouldn't we have a children's party on board one day next week? It isn't too late, is it?"

"Yes, sir," chimed in the Indiarubber Man. "A pukka children's party, with wind-sails for them to slither down and a merry-go-round on the after-capstan?"

The Captain drank his tea thoughtfully; his blue eyes twinkled. "Let us have a definition of children, Standish. I seem to remember a certain bridesmaid at the Gunnery Lieutenant's wedding of what I believe is technically called the 'flapper' age——"

"Quite right, sir," cut in the Torpedo Lieutenant. "Our lives were a misery for weeks afterwards. He burbled about 'shy flowerets' in his sleep, sir——"

The Indiarubber Man blushed hotly. "Not 't'll, sir. They're talking rot. She thought I was ninety, and daft at that. They always do," he added sighing, the sigh of a sore heart that motley traditionally covers.

"I propose that we have no one older than Georgina or younger than Cornelius James," suggested the Junior Watchkeeper. "That limits the ages to between ten and seven, and then I think Standish's susceptible heart would be out of danger."

"How many children do you propose to turn loose all over the ship?" inquired the First Lieutenant dourly. "No one seems to have taken my paint-work into consideration. It's all new this week."

The Skipper's Missus laughed softly. "We were so concerned about Mr. Standish's heart, Mr. Hornby, that we quite forgot your paint-work. Couldn't it be all covered up just for this once? Besides, they are such tiny children . . ."

There are many skippers' missuses, but only one mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James.

The First Lieutenant capitulated.

"I vote we don't have any grown-ups, either," contributed the Junior Watchkeeper, "except ourselves. Mothers and nurses always spoil children's parties."

The mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James wrung her hands in mock dismay. "Oh, but mayn't I come? I promise not to spoil anything—I love parties so!"

The A.P. rushed in where an angel might have been excused for faltering. "Glegg means that you don't count as a grown-up at a children's party," he explained naively, regarding the Skipper's Missus through his glasses with dog-like devotion.

She laughed merrily. "You pay a pretty compliment, Mr. Gerrard!"

"Double-O" Gerrard reddened and lapsed into bashful silence.

"It is agreed, then. We are to have a children's party, and I may come. Won't the children be excited!"

"Torps, what are you going to do with them," asked the First Lieutenant, "besides breaking their necks by pushing them down the windsails?" He spoke without bitterness, but as a man who had in his youth embraced cynicism as a refuge and found the pose easier to retain than to discard.

The Torpedo Lieutenant regarded him severely. "It's no good adopting this tone of lofty detachment, Number One. You're going to do most of the entertaining, besides keeping my grey hairs company."

The First Lieutenant laughed, a sad, hard laugh without any laughter in it. "I don't amuse children, I'm afraid. In fact, I frighten them. They don't like my face. No, no——"

"Mr. Hornby," interposed the Skipper's Missus reproachfully, "that isn't quite true, is it? You know Jane prays for you nightly, and Corney wouldn't for worlds sleep without that wooden semaphore you made him——"

"I think Hornby would make an admirable Father Neptune," said the Captain, considering him mischievously, "with a tow wig and beard——"

"And my green bath kimono," supplemented the A.P. "I bought it at Nagasaki, in the bazaar. It's got green dragons all over it——" He met the First Lieutenant's eye and lapsed into silence again.

"Yes! Yes! And oyster-shells sewn all over it, and seaweed trailing . . ." The Skipper's Missus clapped her hands. "And distribute presents after tea. Oh, Mr. Hornby, wouldn't that be lovely!"

The First Lieutenant took no further part in the discussion. But late that night he was observed to select a volume of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" (L-N) from the wardroom library, and retire with it to his cabin. His classical education had been scanty, and left him in some doubt as to what might be expected of the son of Saturn and Rhea at a children's party.



2

"I doubt if any of 'em'll face it," said the First Lieutenant hopefully, when The Day arrived. "There's a nasty lop on, and the glass is tumbling down as if the bottom had dropped out. It's going to blow a hurricane before midnight. Anyhow, they'll all be sick coming off."

The Torpedo Lieutenant was descending the ladder to the picket-boat. "Bunje and I are going in to look after them. It's too late to put it off now." He glanced at the threatening horizon. "They'll be all snug once we get them on board, and this'll all blow over before tea-time."

Off went the steamboats, the Torpedo Lieutenant in the picket-boat and the Indiarubber Man in the steam pinnace, and a tremor of excitement ran through the little cluster of children gathering at the jetty steps ashore.

"It's awfully rough outside the harbour," announced Cornelius James, submitting impatiently to his nurse's inexplicable manipulation of the muffler round his neck. "I'm never sick, though," he confided to a small and rather frightened-looking mite of a girl who clung to her nurse's hand and looked out to the distant ship with some trepidation in her blue eyes. "My daddy's a Captain," continued Cornelius James; "and I'm never sick—are you?"

She nodded her fair head. "Yeth," she lisped sadly.

"P'r'aps your daddy isn't a Captain," conceded Cornelius James magnificently.

The maiden shook her head. "My daddy's an Admiral," was the slightly disconcerting reply.

"I shall steer the boat," asserted Cornelius James presently, by way of restoring his shaken prestige.

"Oh, Corney, you can't," said Jane. "Casey always lets Georgie steer father's galley—you know he does. You're only saying that to show off."

"'M not," retorted Cornelius James. "I'm a boy: girls can't steer boats. 'Sides, Georgie'll be sick."

"Oh, I hope there'll be a band and dancing," said Georgina rapturously.

"That's all you girls think about," snorted a young gentleman of about her own age, with deep scorn. "I hope there'll be a shooting gallery, an' those ras'berry puffs with cream on top. . . ." His eye followed the pitching steamboats, fast drawing near. "Anyhow, I hope there'll be a shooting gallery. . . . I say, it's rather rough, isn't it?"

The children, cloaked and muffled in their wraps, watched the boats buffet their way shoreward in clouds of spray. The parting injunctions of nurses and governesses fell on deaf ears. How could anyone be expected to listen to prompted rigmaroles about "bread and butter before cake" and "don't forget to say thank you for asking me" with the prospect of this brave adventure drawing so near?

Georgina, standing on tip-toe with excitement, suddenly emitted a shrill squeal of emotion. "Oh! there's Mr. Mainwaring in the first boat!"

"Who's Mr. Mainwaring?" inquired a small girl with a white bow over one ear, secretly impressed by Georgina's obvious familiarity with the inspiring figure in the stern sheets of the picket-boat.

"Dear Mr. Mainwaring!" repeated Georgina under her breath, gazing rapturously at her idol.

White Bow repeated her query.

"He's—he's Mr. Mainwaring," replied Georgina. "My Mr. Mainwaring." Which is about as much information as any young woman may reasonably be expected to give another who betrays too lively an interest in her beloved.

The Torpedo Lieutenant waved his arm in a gesture of indiscriminate greeting, and the children responded with a fluttering of hands and dancing eyes. The steam pinnace was following hard in the wake of the picket-boat.

Jane, with the far-seeing eye of love, recognised the occupant instantly. "There's Mr. Standish," she said. "My Mr. Standish!"

The nurse of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James turned to the Providence that brooded over a small boy with a freckled face. "Did you ever hear such children?" she asked in an aside. "Her Mr. Standish! That's the way they goes on all day!"

The other nodded. "Mine's like that, too; only it's our ship's Sergeant of Marines with him." Master Freckles's choice in the matter of an idol had evidently not lacked the wise guidance of his nurse.

The boats swung alongside in the calm waters of the basin. The Torpedo Lieutenant handed his freight of frills and furbelows to the Coxswain's outstretched arms. The small boys to a man disdained the helping hand, but scrambled with fine independence into the stern sheets.

"Sit still a minute." The Indiarubber Man counted. ". . . Eight—twelve! Hallo! Six absentees—— No, Corney, you can't steer, because I'm going to clap you all below hatches the moment we get outside." He raised his voice, hailing the picket-boat. "All right, Torps?" The Torpedo Lieutenant signified that they were all aboard the lugger, and off they went.

The nurses assembled on the end of the jetty waved their handkerchiefs with valedictory gestures; the wind caught their shrill farewells and tossed them contemptuously to where the gulls wheeled far overhead.

"My! Isn't it blowing!" said the small boy in freckles, indifferent to his nurse's lamentations of farewell. "Look at Nannie's skirts, like a balloon. . . ."

"Yes," agreed the Torpedo Lieutenant gravely. "It's what's called a typhoon. I've only seen one worse, and that was the day I sailed in pursuit of Bill Blubbernose, the Bargee Buccaneer."

Georgina cast him a glance of passionate credence.

"Oh!" gasped Freckles, "have you really chased pirates?" The Torpedo Lieutenant nodded. A certain three weeks spent in an open cutter off the coast of Zanzibar as a midshipman still remained a vivid recollection.

"Tell us about it," said the children, and snuggled closer into the shelter of the Torpedo Lieutenant's long arms.

The steamboats drew near the ship, and in the reeling stern-sheets of the steam-pinnace the Indiarubber Man stood holding two small figures by the collars—two small figures whose heads projected far beyond the lee gunwale. They were Cornelius James and the young gentleman whose valiant soul had yearned for shooting galleries and eke raspberry puffs. And, horror of horrors! the little girls were laughing.

The picket-boat had no casualties to report, and as she went plunging alongside, the Junior Watchkeeper (in sea-boots at the bottom of the ladder) heard the Torpedo Lieutenant say:

"We cut their noses off and nailed them to the flying jibboom."

"And what happened then?" gasped the enthralled Freckles as he was picked up and hoisted over the rail on to the spray-splashed ladder.

"And they all lived happily ever afterwards," murmured the Torpedo Lieutenant absently. "Come on, who's next? One, two, three—on the next wave. Hup you go!"

At the top of the ladder to greet each small guest stood the mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James. She had lunched on board with her husband and had spent the early part of the afternoon fashioning a garment for Father Neptune—

"That the feast might be more joyous, That the time might pass more gaily, And the guests be more contented,"

quoted the First Lieutenant with his twisted smile, as he tried it on.

The quarterdeck had been closed in with an awning and side curtains of canvas that made all within as snug as any nursery. The deck had been dusted with French chalk; bright-coloured flags draped the canvas walls; the band was whimpering to start.

Cornelius James and his fellow sufferer were not long in recovering from their indisposition; a glass of milk and biscuits soon restored matters to the normal, and together they sallied forth to sample the joys that had been prepared for them.

There were windsails stretched from the after-bridge to mattresses on the quarter-deck, down which one shot through the dizzy darkness to end in a delicious "wump" at the bottom. The after-capstan was a roundabout, with its squealing passengers suspended from capstan-bars. Each grim twelve-inch gun had a saddle strapped round the muzzle, on which one sat, thrilled and ecstatic, while the great guns rose slowly to extreme elevation and descended again to mundane levels.

There were pennies for the venturesome, to be extracted at great personal risk from an electric dip; in a dark casemate a green light shivered in a little glass tube; you placed your hand in front of it, and on a white screen a skeleton hand appeared in a manner at once ghostly and delightful. Cornelius James returned to the quarter-deck as one who had brushed elbows with the Black Arts. "But I wish I could see right froo my own tummy," he confided, sighing, to the First Lieutenant.

The First Lieutenant, however, was rather distrait; he glanced constantly upwards at the bellying awning overhead and then walked to the gangway to look out upon the tumbling grey sea and lowering sky. Once or twice he conferred with a distinguished-looking gentleman who had not joined in the revels, but, carrying a telescope and wearing a sword-belt, remained aloof with a rather worried expression. This was the Officer of the Watch.

"We'll furl it while they're having tea," said the First Lieutenant. "But how the deuce they're going to get ashore the Lord knows. I'll have to hoist in the boats if it gets any worse. Keep an eye on the compass and see we aren't dragging." The Captain came across the deck.

"You must furl the awning, Hornby; we're in for a blow." He looked round regretfully at the laughing throng of youngsters.

"Yes, sir. And I think we ought to send the children ashore while there's still time." As he spoke a wave struck the bottom of the accommodation ladder and broke in a great cloud of spray.

"Too late now, I'm afraid. They'll have to stay till it moderates. The wind has backed suddenly. Get steam on the boat-hoist and hoist in the boats. You'd better top-up the ladders. Pretty kettle of fish, with my wife and all these children on board."



3

Tea had passed into the limbo of things enjoyed, if not forgotten, and the guests had gathered in the after-cabin. "Children!" cried the mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James, "a visitor has come on board to see you!" As she spoke, a gaunt apparition appeared in the doorway. He wore a gilt paper crown, and was dressed in a robe of the brightest green. Seaweed hung in festoons from his head and shoulders, oyster-shells clashed as he walked; in one hand he carried a trident, and on his back a heavy pannier. His legs were encased in mighty boots, a shaggy beard hung down over his chest; his eyes, sombre and unsmiling, roved over the assembled children.

There was a sudden silence: then the small girl with the white bow over one ear burst into tears. "Boo-hoo!" she cried. "Don't like nasty man," and ran to bury her face in her hostess's gown. Her fears were infectious, and symptoms of a general panic ensued. "I knew it," mumbled the visitor despairingly into his beard, "I knew this would happen."

"Children, children, don't be silly—it's only Father Neptune. He's got presents for you all. Won't you go and say how d'you do to him! He's come all the way from the bottom of the sea."

Cornelius James pulled himself together and advanced with outstretched hand, as befitted the son of a post-captain on board his father's ship. "I know who you are," he asserted stoutly. "You're Father Christmas's brother!"

The First Lieutenant hastily accepted this new mythology. "Quite right," he replied with gratitude, "quite right!" Then, as if realising that something further was required of him, added in a deep bass voice:

"Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum!"

White Bow screamed, and even Cornelius James the valiant fell back a pace. Matters were beginning to look serious, when the Torpedo Lieutenant appeared, rather out of breath. "Sorry we had to rush away just now, but we had to furl the awning——" His quick eye took in the situation at a glance.

"Hallo! old chap," he cried, and smote the dejected Father Neptune on the back. "I am delighted to see you! How are all the mermaids and flying-fish? Bless my soul! what have you got in this pannier—dolls . . . lead soldiers, air-guns! I say——"

The children rallied round him as the children of another age must have rallied round Saint George of England.

"Don't like nasty old man," repeated White Bow, considering the First Lieutenant with dewy eyes. "Nasty cross old man." The visitor from the bottom of the sea fumbled irresolutely with his trident.

"Is it really Father Christmas's own brother?" queried a small sceptic, advancing warily.

"Of course it is! Look here, look at all the things he's brought you," and in an undertone to the First Lieutenant, "Buck up, Number One, don't look so frightened!" They unslung the pannier and commenced to unpack the contents; the children gathered round with slowly returning confidence, and by twos and threes the remainder of the hosts returned from the upper-deck.

"Why aren't they all wet if they've come from the bottom of the sea?" demanded Freckles the materialist. "Why isn't Father Christmas's brother wet?"

They looked round in vain. Father Christmas's brother had vanished.

At that moment the Captain entered and sought his wife's eye. For a few moments they conferred in an undertone; then she laughed, that clear confident laugh of hers with which they had shared so many of life's perplexities.

"Children!" she cried, "listen! Here's an adventure! We've all got to sleep on board to-night!"

"Oh, mummie!" gasped Georgina with rapture, "how lovely!" This was a party, and no mistake. "Can I sleep in Mr. Mainwaring's cabin?"

"And can I sleep in Mr. Standish's cabin?" echoed Jane earnestly. "And we needn't go to bed for hours and hours, need we?" chimed in Cornelius James.

"Where are they to sleep?" asked the Captain's wife, turning to the Torpedo Lieutenant with laughter still in her eyes. "I never thought of that. One always has spare rooms in a house, but a battleship is so different. . . ."

"It's all right," he replied. "I've arranged all that. There are a lot of people ashore: the children can use their cabins, and some of us can sling in cots for the night. They'll have to wear our pyjamas. . . . But I don't know about baths——"

"I think they must have plenary absolution from the tub to-night." She glanced at the tiny watch at her wrist. "Now then, children, half an hour before bed time: one good romp. What shall we play?"

"Oranges and lemons," said Georgina promptly, and seized the Indiarubber Man's hand.

"I don't know the words," replied her partner plaintively; "I only 'knows the toon,'" as the leadsman said to the Navigator.

So the children supplied the words to the men's bass accompaniment; the Captain and his wife linked hands. The candle came to light them to bed; the chopper came to chop off a head; and at the end a grand tug-of-war terminated with two squealing heaps of humanity in miniature subsiding on top of the Young Doctor and the A.P.

Then they played "Hunt the slipper," at which Torps, with his long arms, greatly distinguished himself, and "Hide the thimble," at which Double-O Gerrard, blinking through his glasses straight at the quarry without seeing it, was hopelessly disgraced. "General Post" and "Kiss in the Ring" followed, and quite suddenly the mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James decreed it was time for bed, and the best game of all began.

The Captain's wife gathered six pairs of vasty pyjamas over her arm. "I'll take the girls all together and look after them in my husband's cabin," she said. "We'll come along when we're ready. Will you all look after the boys?"

Freckles fell to the lot of the Junior Watchkeeper; David, specialist in raspberry puffs, had already attached himself to the Indiarubber Man. The A.P. found himself leading off a young gentleman with an air-gun which he earnestly desired as a bed-fellow. The remaining two, red-headed twins who had spent most of the afternoon locked in combat, were in charge of Torps and the Young Doctor.

"Where's Cornelius James?" asked the First Lieutenant suddenly. "What a day, what a day!" A search party was promptly instituted, and the Captain's son at last discovered forward in the Petty Officers' mess. Here, seated on the knee of Casey, his father's coxswain, he was being regaled with morsels of bloater, levered into his willing mouth on the point of a clasp knife, and washed down by copious draughts of strong tea out of a basin.

"I went to say 'Good night' to Casey," explained the delinquent as he was being led back to civilisation, "and Casey said I ought to be hungry after mustering my bag this afternoon. What does that mean?"

"I shouldn't listen to everything Casey tells you," replied the First Lieutenant severely.

"That's what daddy says sometimes," observed Cornelius James. "But I like Casey awfully. Better'n Nannie. He taught me how to make a reef-knot, an' I can do semaphore—the whole alphabet . . . nearly."

"Here we are," interrupted his harassed mentor, stopping before the door of his cabin. "This is where you've got to sleep." He lifted his small charge on to the bunk. "Now then, let's get these shoes off. . . ."

The flat echoed with the voices of children and the sounds of expostulation. The Marine sentry (specially selected for the post "on account of 'im 'avin' a way with children," as the Sergeant-Major had previously explained to the First Lieutenant) drifted to and fro on his beat with a smile of ecstatic enjoyment on his faithful R.M.L.I. features. For some moments he hovered outside the Junior Watchkeeper's cabin. There were indications in the conversation drifting out through the curtained doorway that all was not well within. At length Private Phillips could contain himself no longer. "Better let me do it, sir. Bein' a married man, sir, I knows the routine, in a manner o' speakin' . . ." he said, and plunged into the fray.

"Oh, is that you, Phillips?" the relieved voice of the Junior Watchkeeper was heard to say. "I can't get the lead of this infernal rice-string—don't wriggle, Jim—it's rove so taut. . . ."

"What 'normous pyjamas," said Cornelius James, suffering himself to be robed in his night-attire. The operation was conducted with some difficulty because of the sheathed sword which the visitor had found in a corner of his host's cabin and refused thereafter to be parted from. "Have you ever killed anyone with this sword?" A blustering sea broke against the ship's side and splashed the glass of the scuttle with spray. "Hark at the waves outside! Can't I have the window open? Shall I say my prayers to you?"

"No," replied the First Lieutenant, with a little wry smile, as the shadow-fingers of the might-have-been tightened momentarily round his heart. "No, I think you'd better wait till Mummie comes." Shrill voices and peals of laughter sounded outside. "Here she is now."

He stepped outside, and met the mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James at the head of her flock.

"Here we are," she exclaimed, laughing. "But, oh, Mr. Hornby, our pyjamas are so huge!"

"So are ours," said the First Lieutenant, and stooped to gather into his arms a pathetic object whose pyjama coat of many colours almost trailed along the deck. "Cornelius James wants you to go and hear him say his prayers. . . . I will find sleeping quarters for this one."

Ten minutes later the last child had been swung into its unaccustomed sleeping quarters; the twins in adjacent cabins had ceased to hurl shrill defiance at each other; and silence brooded over the flat. By the dim light of the police-lamp Private Phillips paced noiselessly up and down on his beat, and the mother of Georgina, Jane, and Cornelius James passed softly from cabin to cabin in that gentle meditation mothers play at bedtime.

On her way aft to the after-cabin she met the Torpedo Lieutenant. "The children all want to say 'Good night' to you," she said softly. "Only don't stay long. They are so excited, and they'll never go to sleep." Of all the men on board the Torpedo Lieutenant's heart was perhaps nearest that of a child. He tiptoed into the cabin-flat and drew the curtain of the nearest cabin.

"Who's in here?"

"Me," said a small voice. Torps approached the bunk. "Who's 'me'—Georgina?"

"Yes. Goodnight, Mr. Mainwaring."

"Good night, shrimp," replied her idol, submitting to the valediction of two skinny arms twined tightly round his neck. "Good night, and sweet dreams. . . . No, I can't tell you stories to-night; it's much too late. . . . Lie down and go to sleep."

In the next cabin, the sound of deep breathing showed that the small occupant had passed into dreamland. It was Freckles. Jane remained awake long enough to kiss his left eyebrow and was asleep the next instant. White Bow also was asleep, and nearly all the remainder drowsy. Cornelius James, clasping the First Lieutenant's sword, however, remained wide-eyed. "I'm so firsty," he complained plaintively.

"That's called Nemesis, my son," said Torps, and gave him to drink out of the water-bottle. "Fank you," said Cornelius James, and sighed, as children and dogs do after drinking.

"Good night, Corney. . . . Now you must go to sleep and dream of bloaters. Oh, aren't you really sleepy? Well, if you shut your eyes tight perhaps the dustman won't see you," and switched out the light. As he was leaving a drowsy voice again spoke out of the darkness.

"What did the Buccaneer say when you nailed his nose to the flying jibboom?"

"Please make me a good boy," replied Torps, somewhat at random.

"Oh, same's I do," said Cornelius James.

"More or less; isn't that sword very uncomfortable?"

But no answer came back, for Cornelius James, the hilt of the sword grasped firmly in two small hands, had passed into the Valhalla of Childhood.



VIII

THE MUMMERS

The sun had not long set, and its afterglow bathed the bay in pink light. It was a land-locked harbour, and the surface of the water held the reflections of the anchored Battle-fleet mirrored to its smallest detail. So still was the evening that sounds travelled across the water with peculiar acute distinctness.

On the quarter-deck of the end ship of the lee line a thousand men were trying to talk in undertones, lighting and relighting pipes, rallying their friends on distant points of vantage, and humming tunes under their breath. The resultant sound was very much like what you would hear if you placed your ear against a beehive on a summer day, only magnified a million-fold.

The ship's company of a super-Dreadnought, and as many men from other ships as could be accommodated on board, were gathered on the foremost part of the quarter-deck, facing aft. They sat in rows on mess stools, they were perched astride the after-turret guns, on the shields of the turrets, clinging to rails, stanchions and superstructure, tier above tier of men clad in night-clothing—that is to say, in blue jumper and trousers, with the white V of the flannel showing up each seaman's bronzed neck and face. Seamen and marines all wore their caps tilted comfortably on the backs of their heads, as is the custom of men of H.M. Navy enjoying their leisure. Above them all the smoke from a thousand pipes and cigarettes trembled in a blue haze on the still air of a summer evening.

They were there to witness an impromptu sing-song—a scratch affair organised at short notice to provide mirth and recreation for a ship's company badly in need of both. It was a ship's company hungry for laughter after endless months of watching and waiting for an enemy that was biding his time. Their lungs ached for a rousing, full-throated chorus ("All together, lads!"). They were simply spoiling to be the most appreciative audience in the world.

On the after-part of the quarter-deck a stage had been hurriedly constructed—a rude affair of planks and spars that could be disposed of in a very few moments if necessity arose—that supported a piano. A canvas screen, stretched between two stanchions behind the stage, did duty as scenery, and afforded the performers a "green-room"—for, of all the ritual connected with appearing upon a stage, the business of "making-up" lies nearest to the sailor's heart. Provide him with a lavish supply of grease-paint, wigs, and the contents of the chaplain's or the officer of his division's wardrobe, and the success or otherwise of his turn, when it ultimately comes, matters little to the sailor-man. He has had his hour.

In front of the stage, a little in advance of the men, rows of chairs and benches provided sitting accommodation for the officers. They came up from dinner, lighting pipes and cigars, a full muster from Wardroom, Gunroom and Warrant Officers' Mess. The Captain came last, and his appearance was the signal for a great outburst of cheering from the closely packed audience. They had been waiting for this moment. It gave them an opportunity of relieving their pent-up feelings; it also gave them a chance to show the rest of the Fleet their attitude towards this Captain of theirs.

It was something they were rather proud that the rest of the Fleet should see.

Moreover, the rest of the Fleet, leaning over the forecastle rails and smoking its evening pipe, did see, and was none the worse for it.

A man might have been excused if he betrayed some self-consciousness at finding himself thus suddenly the cynosure of a thousand-odd pair of eyes whose owners were doing their best to show him, after their fashion, that they thought him an uncommonly fine fellow. The atmosphere was electrical with this abrupt, boyish ebullition of feeling. Yet the Captain's face, as he took his seat, was as composed as if he were alone in the middle of his own wide moors. He lit a pipe and nodded to the Commander beside him to signify that as far as he was concerned the show could start as soon as they liked.

All happy ships own a sing-song party of some sort or another. It may be that the singers are content to sit pipe in mouth in the lee of a gunshield and croon in harmony as the dusk settles down on a day's work done. Other ships' companies are more ambitious; the canteen provides a property-box, and from a flag-decked stage the chosen performers declaim and clog-dance with all the circumstance of the drama.

In days of piping peace, the Operatic and Dramatic Company of this particular ship had known many vicissitudes. Under the guidance of a musically inclined Ship's Steward, it had faced audiences across impromptu footlights as "The Pale Pink Pierrots," and, as such, had achieved a meteoric distinction. But unhappily the Ship's Steward was partial to oysters, and bought a barrelful at an auction sale ashore. On the face of things, it appeared a bargain; but the Ship's Steward neglected to inquire too closely into the antecedents of its contents, and was duly wafted to other spheres of usefulness.

The Chaplain, an earnest man but tone-deaf, rallied the leaderless troupe of musicians. During the period of his directorship they were known to fame as "The Musical Coons." Musical in that each one wielded a musical instrument with which he made bold to claim acquaintance, Coons because they blacked their faces with burnt cork and had "corner-men." The corner-men were the weak spots in an otherwise well-planned organisation.

A sailor can be trusted with the integrity of a messmate's honour or the resources of the mint, conceivably with the key of a brewery cellar, and justify the confidence reposed in him. But he cannot be trusted to be a corner-man, "gagging" with a black face and a pair of bones. The Musical Coons dissolved after one performance, during which the Captain's brow grew black and the Chaplain turned faint, and an ecstatic ship's company shouted itself hoarse with delirious enjoyment.

Thereafter, for a period, the breath of rebuke and disrepute clung to the songsters; but a ship without a sing-song party is like a dog without a tail. A committee of Petty Officers waited upon the First Lieutenant, as men once proffered Cromwell the Protectorship of England, lest a worse thing befell them. The First Lieutenant, with a reluctance and a full sense of the responsibilities involved, that was also Cromwellian, finally consented to become the titular head of the sing-song party.

He it was, then, who rose from his chair, holding a slip of paper, and faced the great bank of faces with one hand raised to enjoin silence. The cheering redoubled.

For perhaps fifteen seconds he stood with raised hand, then he lowered it and the smile left his eyes. His brows lowered too. The cheering wavered, faltered, died away. They knew what Number One meant when he looked like that.

"The first item on the programme," he said in his clear voice, "is a song by Petty Officer Dawson, entitled, 'The Fireman's Daughter,'" and sat down again amid loud applause.

The A.P. rose, hopped on to the stage, and sat down at the piano that occupied one wing of the stage. Petty Officer Dawson, who was also the ship's painter, emerged from behind the canvas screen, coyly wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. The piano tinkled out the opening bars of the song, and the concert began.

It was a sad song; the very first verse found the fireman's daughter on her death-bed. But the tune was familiar and pleasantly mournful, and, as the piano thumped the opening bars of the refrain for the second time, the hundreds of waiting men took it up readily. The melody swelled and rose, till the sadness of the theme was somehow overwhelmed by the sadness that is in the harmony of men's voices singing in the open air.

Petty Officer Dawson was a stout man addicted in daily life to the inexplicable habit of drying his gold-leaf brush in the few wisps of hair Nature had left him with. His role on the occasion of a concert was usually confined to painting the scenery. The nation being at war, and this particular concert held during the effective blockade of an enemy's empire, scenery was out of the question. So, as one of the recognised members of the sing-song party, he sang—with, be it added, considerable effect.

"The next item," announced the First Lieutenant (who knew his audience better even than they knew him), "is a comic song entitled, 'Hold tight, Emma!' by Stoker Williams."

This was "Taff" Williams, Stoker First-class, comedian tenth-class, and master of patter unintelligible (mercifully so, perhaps) to any but a bluejacket audience. He was a wisp of a man with a pale, beardless face and small features; incidentally, too, the scrum half of the ship's Rugby team and the referee's terror.

But he was more than this: he was the ship's wag, and so was greeted with shouts and whistles of approval as he stepped on to the stage attired in the burlesque counterfeit of an airman's costume.

Perhaps you might not have thought his song so very funny after all. It might even have struck you as vulgar, since it depended for its humour upon gorgonzola cheese, the eldest son of the German Emperor, mal-de-mer, and a number of other things not considered amusing in polite society. But the sailor's susceptibilities are peculiar: they were there to enjoy themselves, and again and again a great gust of laughter swept over the audience as an autumn gale convulses the trees on the outskirts of a forest. The singer's topical allusions, sly incomprehensibilities, he flung about him like bombs that burst in an unfailing roar of delight among his shipmates. No wonder they liked him; and even the padre, who perforce had to knit his brows once or twice, looked regretful when the last encore was over.

Taff Williams's song was succeeded by a duet. The singers were also comedians, but of a different calibre. Some odd freak of Nature had fashioned them both astoundingly alike in face and frame. They were baldish men, short and sturdy, with sandy eyebrows and lashes of so light a colour as to be almost invisible. Their countenances were round and expressionless, and their song, which was called "We are the Brothers Boo-Hoo!" contained little beyond reiterations of the fact, interspersed with "steps" of a solemn and intricate nature.

Ordinarily their avocations and walks in life were separated by a wide gulf. One was a Petty Officer and L.T.O., the other a stoker. But Fame recognises no distinctions of class or calling, and circumstances over which they had little control, the universal decree of the ship's company in short, drove them on to the stage to face successive audiences side by side as The Brothers Boo-Hoo. Neither dreamed of appearing there without the other, although off it, save for a few grave rehearsals, they rarely met. They were not vocalists, but they bowed to popular demand, preserving their stolid, immobile demeanours, and sang in accents sternly and unintelligibly Gaelic.

Their turn over, the First Lieutenant announced a juggling display by Boy Buggins. Boy Buggins appeared, very spick and span in a brand new suit of Number Threes, and proceeded to juggle with canteen eggs, Indian clubs and mess crockery (while the caterer of his mess held his breath to the verge of apoplexy) in a manner quite bewildering.

The Captain took his pipe out of his mouth and leaned towards the Commander. "Where did the lad pick up these antics?" he inquired, smiling.

The Commander shook his head. "I don't know, sir. Probably in a circus."

As a matter of fact, Boy Buggins did start life (as far as his memory carried him) in grubby pink tights and spangles. But he followed in the train of no circus; it was in front of public-houses in a district of London where such pitches recurred with dreary frequency that he cut capers on a strip of carpet. He visited them nightly in the company of a stalwart individual who also wore pink tights. After each performance the stalwart one ordained an interval for refreshment. On good days he used to reach home very much refreshed indeed.

They called it home (it was a cellar) because they slept there; and as often as not a thin woman with tragic eyes was there waiting for them. She used to hold out her hand with a timid, shamed gesture, and there was money in it which the man took. If he had had a good day or she a bad one—it was always one or the other—the stalwart one beat the woman, or, in his own phraseology, "put it acrost" her. But ultimately he had one good day too many, or else he felt unusually stalwart, for the woman lay motionless in the corner of the cellar where she was flung, and wouldn't answer when he had finished kicking her.

The police took the stalwart one away to swing for it, and "the parish" took the thin woman away in a deal box. Boy Buggins passed, via an industrial training ship, into the Royal Navy, and earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal before this particular sing-song had passed out of the minds of those who were present at it.

One must conclude that all these things were, as the Arabs say, on his forehead.

"Private Mason, R.M.L.I.—Concertina Solo!"

A great burst of laughter and cheering broke out from the sailors, and redoubled as a private of Marines, holding a concertina in his gnarled fists, walked on to the stage. Even the officers put their hands up to smile behind them; one or two nearest the First Lieutenant leaned over and patted him on the back as if he had achieved something.

The whole audience, officers and men, were evidently revelling in some tremendous secret reminiscence conjured up by the appearance of this private of Marines. Yet, as he stood there, fingering the keys of his instrument, waiting for the uproar to subside, there was little about him to suggest high humour. He was just a thin, rather delicate-looking man with a grizzled moustache and dreamy eyes fixed on vacancy. His claim to notoriety, alas, lay in more than his incomparable music. Human nature at its best is a frail thing. But human nature, as typified by Private Mason, was very frail. Apart from his failing he was a valuable asset to the sing-song party; but, unhappily, it required all the resources and ingenuity of its promoters to keep Private Mason sober on the night of an entertainment.

When and how he acquired the wherewithal to wreck the high hopes of the reigning stage manager was a mystery known to him alone. His messmates drained their tots at dinner with conscientious thoroughness, and his into the bargain, striving together less in the cause of temperance than from a desire that he should for once do himself and his concertina (of which he was a master) justice.

Yet, his turn announced, on the last occasion of a concert before the war, the curtain rose upon an empty stage. The Carpenter's party happened upon him, as archaeologists might excavate a Sleeping Bacchus or a recumbent Budda, in the process of dismantling the stage. Private Mason was underneath it, breathing stertorously, a smile of beatific contentment on his worn features, his head pillowed on his concertina.

The Fleet Surgeon subsequently missed a large-sized bottle of eau-de-Cologne from his cabin, which he was bringing home from Gibraltar as a present for his wife. The discovery of the loss assisted him in his diagnosis of the case.

Silence fell on the audience at length, and the concertina solo began. As has been indicated, Private Mason could play the concertina. In his rather tremulous hands it was no longer an affair of leather and wood (or of whatever material concertinas are constructed), but a living thing that laughed and sobbed, and shook your soul like the Keening. It became a yearning, passionate, exultant daughter of Music that somehow wasn't quite respectable.

And when he had finished, and passed his hand across his moist forehead preparatory to retiring from the stage, they shouted for more.

"Church bells, Nobby!" cried a hundred voices. "Garn, do the church bells!" So he did the church bells, as the wind brings the sound across the valley on a summer evening at home, wringing his shipmates' sentimental heartstrings to the limit of their enjoyment.

"Strewth!" ejaculated a bearded member of the audience when the turn was over, relighting his pipe with a hand that shook. "I 'ear Nobby play that at the Canteen at Malta, time Comman'er-in-Chief an' 'is Staff was there—Comman'er-in-Chief, so 'elp me, 'e sob' like a woman. . . ."

The reminiscence may not have been in strict accordance with the truth, but, even considered in the light of fiction, it was a pretty testimony to Private Mason's art.

The last turn of the evening came an hour later when the slightly embarrassed Junior Watchkeeper stepped on to the stage. His appearance was the signal for another great outburst of enthusiasm from the men. He was not perhaps more of a favourite with them than any of his brethren seated on the chairs below; but he was an officer, obviously not at ease on a concert stage, only anxious to do his bit towards making the evening a success. They realised it on the instant, with the readiness of seamen to meet their officers half-way when the latter are doing something they evidently dislike to help the common weal. They knew the Junior Watchkeeper didn't want to sing, and they cared little what he sang about, but they cheered him with full-throated affection as he stood gravely facing them, waiting for a lull.

It is just this spirit, of which so much has been imperfectly conveyed to the layman—is, in fact, not comprehended in its entity by outsiders—which is called for want of a better term "sympathy between officers and men." It is a bond of mutual generosity and loyalty, strong as steel, more formidable to an enemy than armaments; strengthened by monotony and a common vigil, it thrives on hardships shared, and endures triumphant, as countless tales shall tell, down to the gates of Death.

The Junior Watchkeeper's song was an old one—one that had stirred the hearts of sailors no longer even memories with his audience. He sang simply and tunefully in the strong voice of one who knew how to pitch an order in the open air. When it was finished, he acknowledged the tumultuous applause by a stiff little bow and retreated, flushing slightly. The sing-song was over.

The officers were rising from their chairs, the A.P. at the piano was looking towards the Commander for permission to crash out the opening bars of the Anthem that would swing the audience as one man to its feet. At that moment a Signalman threaded his way through the chairs and saluted the Captain.

The latter took the signal-pad extended to him, and read the message. Then he turned abruptly to the audience, his hand raised to command silence. The last of the warm glow that lingered long in the northern summer twilight lit his strong, fine face as he faced his men. There was a great hush of expectancy.

"Before we pipe down," he said, "I want to read you a message that has just come from the Commander-in-Chief. 'One of our destroyers engaged and sank by gunfire two of the enemy's destroyers this afternoon.'"

A great roar of cheering greeted the curt message. The listening fleet took it up, and in the stillness of the land-locked harbour the volume of sound reverberated, savagely and triumphantly exultant.

The hills ashore caught the echo and tossed it sleepily to and fro.

Then, flushed with excitement and hoarse with shouting, they sang the National Anthem to a close.

Altogether, it was a very noisy evening.



IX

CHUMMY-SHIPS

The Lieutenant for Physical Training Duties came down into the Wardroom and sank into the one remaining arm-chair.

"I must say," he ejaculated, "the sailor is a cheerful animal. Umpteen days steaming on end without seeing any enemy—just trailing the tail of our coat about the North Sea—we come into harbour and we invite the matelots to lie on their backs on the upper-deck (minus cap and jumper) and wave their legs in the air by way of recreation. They comply with the utmost good humour. They don't believe that it does them the smallest good, but they know I get half-a-crown a day for watching them do it, and they go through with it like a lot of portly gentlemen playing 'bears' to amuse their nephews."

The Indiarubber Man broke off and surveyed his messmates with a whimsical grey eye. The majority were assimilating the contents of illustrated weeklies over a fortnight old; two in opposite corners of the settee were asleep with their caps tilted over their noses, sleeping the sleep of profound exhaustion. One member of the mess was amusing himself with a dice-box at the table, murmuring to himself as he rattled and threw.

Previous Part     1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse